King Salman's Saudi Arabia – Between Continuity & Change

The expansion of ISIS, the Iranian nuclear program and the fighting in Syria – the Saudi Kingdom faces numerous challenges. Haim Tomer, formerly a senior Mossad officer, attempts to draw the roadmap of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who currently concludes his first year in office

The death of King Abdullah in early 2015, after twenty years during which he led the Saudi Kingdom as Crown Prince and as King, and the crowning of his brother Salman evoked concerns throughout the region, within the international community and in Israel regarding the courses of action that may be expected in the new era of the monarchy, normally known for its conservative and cautious conduct.

Saudi Arabia, almost needless to say, has, for several decades, constituted a major player in the Middle Eastern arena, owing to its economic strength (as the world's largest exporter of oil), its status as the leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council but not least owing to its central position within the Islamic world generally, as Custodian of the Holy Places and its leadership position within the Sunni faction, particularly since the relative decline in Egypt's central status. From an international perspective, Saudi Arabia played a prominent role, over many decades, as a central – and some say the leading – ally of the USA in the region where, until recently, US interests (oil and gas) constituted a primary strategic shaping force as far as Washington was concerned.

An analysis of the moves made by King Salman's regime during the first few months of his reign yields an image that reflects the clear tendency of the new leadership toward significant changes in the internal, diplomatic and security modus operandi. Apparently, these changes are derived from the new challenges currently facing the Saudi Kingdom. Internally, King Salman's moves indicate that he intends to initiate significant changes, despite his age (80) and health condition (suspected Alzheimer's disease). The relatively prompt deposition of Prince Muqrin from his position as Crown Prince, followed by the appointment of the King's nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, and even more significantly the appointment of his own son Mohammed bin Salman (34) as Deputy Crown Prince and the youngest Minister of Defense in the region, clearly indicate these intentions. The name of the game, as always, is maintaining stability and apparently, the "King Salman Clique" aspires to instill a sense of stability in the Saudi public very promptly. This is clearly reflected through the importance and public stature of the new Crown Prince, Bin Nayef, as well as through the clear marking of the future lineage, which has already presented an opportunity for the great-grandson generation (King Salman belongs to the "Son Generation" while Mohammed bin Nayef belongs to the "Grandson Generation") among the various princes to link up with the intended heir to the throne, with all that entails regarding the development of their personal future.

The aspiration to consolidate, very promptly, a sense of stability domestically, reflects a continual approach on the part of the Saudi Royal House. Apparently, however, the traditional commandment that regards stability as an ultimate strategic value stems from current, concreate reasons. These reasons include the economic-social aspect, the continuing decrease in oil prices and consequent reduction in annual growth, along with the rapid growth of the population that has led to a situation where more than 60% of the Saudi Kingdom's inhabitants are below 30 years of age. All of these factors have heightened the concerns regarding the possible expansion of the scope of domestic unrest, particularly in view of the on-going failure to increase the number of jobs offered by the Saudi economy, despite measures taken in that direction.

Apparently, however, the Saudi authorities are concerned most of all about the possibility of the ISIS spirit permeating into the Saudi Kingdom. This is probably the most significant threat as far as the Salman and bin Nayef clique is concerned. Bin Nayef has been leading the fight against Islamic terrorist elements personally for the past two decades and was the target of a terrorist attack from which he only narrowly escaped (summer 2009).

Saudi Arabia, an Islamic monarchy that advocates Wahhabi Islam, has already provided the hothouse for the emergence of one arch-terrorist, Osama bin Laden. Today, many Saudi youngsters continue to join as Mujahidin the battlegrounds of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as well as the operations of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the profound concerns in Riyadh pertain to the possible development of active nuclei of ISIS supporters within the Saudi Kingdom (there are those who maintain that a substantial number of such nuclei already exists). These nuclei will aspire to implement the vision of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers, who strive to topple the monarchist regimes in the Arab world and establish their own Islamic caliphate in their place. This has led the Saudi Mufti to announce publicly, last August, that "ISIS is currently the Number One enemy of Islam."

Subsequently, it appears that since the outbreak of the "Arab Spring", the leadership of the Saudi Kingdom has been facing two primary threat circles. On the one hand they face the circle of radical Islam as preached and practiced by ISIS and al Qaeda. As stated, these organizations are conceived as having positioned the Islamic monarchies as their top-priority objective (which takes precedence even over Israel) and as an element competing for the hearts and minds of many youngsters in the Sunni world. On the other hand, with regard to the other circle, Saudi Arabia – possibly more than any other Arab and Muslim country – is deeply troubled by the on-going strengthening of Iran and by Iran's aspirations for a Shi'ite hegemony in the Persian Gulf and throughout the Middle East, including opposite Saudi Arabia's borders. These two threat circles dictate the current strategic agenda of Saudi Arabia, while other issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, occupy second place in comparison. In effect, since 2011 and particularly over the last year, Saudi Arabia digressed from its traditional tendency to act behind the scenes, mainly by employing economic leverages, and started using direct force in its "backyard" arenas. In Bahrain, in the spring of 2011, when it seemed that the leadership of that emirate was unable to independently contain the uprising of the Shi'ite majority (80% of the population of Bahrain are Shi'ite Muslims), Saudi Arabia deployed a force that crossed King Fahd Bridge that links between the two states and restored order in the capital Manama. A similar process takes place vis-à-vis the recent developments in the Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been leading an Arab coalition that initiated a military intervention campaign (Operation Decisive Storm) against the Houthi rebels. This intervention was initiated after the Houthi rebels had dominated substantial parts of the state, including the capital Sanaa. In both cases, Saudi Arabia operated close to its own borders, against parties conceived as the allies and lackeys of Iran, based on the understanding that indirect means of influence will not be sufficient to guarantee the desired results.

Syria, Iran & Nuclear Power

Saudi Arabia has been involved militarily in Syria as well, since the outbreak of the civil war in that country (2011), but in Syria, contrary to the direct involvement approach it maintained in the Yemen and in Bahrain, the bulk of its activity boils down to the employment of proxies among the Sunni militia forces fighting against the Assad regime and to cooperating with the coalition established by the USA. It appears, however, that its involvement in this arena, of all places, has recently led the King Salman clique to reconsider the parameters of its approach and its objectives vis-à-vis the primary players operating in Syria. Apparently, the watershed line as far as Riyadh is concerned has to do with the fact that the struggle to the bitter end to which the Saudi Kingdom harnessed itself in recent years has led to the emergence of ISIS as a significant force in the region. This organization started – much to Riyadh's displeasure – to spread its arms into the Sinai, Libya, Africa (Nigeria) and Asia (the Philippines) and has even established, for the first time, its domination in an independent territory in north-western Iraq and eastern Syria.

These manifestations of the strengthening of the radical Islamist elements and the realization of their threatening potential, as it pertains to the status of Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Sunni faction and to the security of the Saudi Kingdom itself, established one of the two primary motivations for the changes and adaptations in the Saudi strategy. The tension that developed between Saudi Arabia and its neighbor, Qatar, owing to the extensive support provided by the regime in Doha to the radical Islamist militia forces in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra and Jabhat al-Tahrir) and to the Hamas movement in the "territories", raised concerns of a possible breakout of a violent confrontation between the two countries (March 2014). The involvement in Syria also emphasized – for a while, at least – the disagreements between Riyadh and Ankara regarding the fate of the Assad regime and in particular with regard to ISIS. While Turkey chose to enable the passage of support to the radical Islamist militia forces operating in northern Syria through its territory, Saudi Arabia preferred to operate in southern Syria in cooperation with the Jordanian government. The support for ISIS attributed to the Erdogan regime, even in connection with the battles that took place near the Syrian-Turkish border, heightened even further the suspicions of the Riyadh regime toward the regional intentions of the new "Turkish Sultan".

Within the global circle, too, Saudi Arabia's concerns about the strengthening of Iran and its aspirations for a military nuclear capability on the one hand, and about the expanding hold of radical Islam in the region on the other hand, have led it to reconsider its strategic alliance with the USA and its relations with Russia. For a while, Riyadh was severely critical of the nuclear agreement with Iran, which it regarded as an on-going manifestation of the Obama government's abandoning of its longstanding supporters in the region – pursuant to the standoffish attitude with which they had treated President Mubarak of Egypt and the implied support Washington provided to the subsequent election of Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Morsi, as the President of Egypt, much to Riyadh's displeasure. Similarly, the collapse of the American order in Iraq pursuant to the pullout of the US troops from that country (December 2011) and the limited, ineffective US involvement – as conceived by Riyadh – in Syria, also generated severe criticism in Saudi Arabia regarding the regional policy of President Obama.

This displeasure had various manifestations, the most important of which were the support provided by Riyadh to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (there are those who claim that without this support, el-Sisi would not have been able to ascend to power in Egypt) and the warming-up of the relations between Riyadh and Moscow. This process was reflected in recent months by the meeting between Mohammed bin Salman and Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, following which the Saudis announced that there was no obstacle regarding significant arms purchases by Saudi Arabia in Russia, and by the reports regarding the expected visit by King Salman to Moscow and arms contracts on the scale of two billion US dollars the two countries intend to sign (T-90 tanks, Mi-35 helicopters and Iskander-M missiles). There are those who go even further, claiming that the introspection process by the King Salman clique led it to actually prefer – albeit not in public – to leave Assad in power and support Russia's direct military involvement against the radical Islamic militia forces headed by ISIS, whose position as a primary threat has evolved into a major shaping factor of the Saudi policy.

Looking to the future, it may be estimated that the ISIS threat on the one hand and the concerns regarding the growing strength of Iran on the other hand will continue to shape the Saudi strategy during the King Salman – bin Nayef era. Therefore, it may be assumed that in the regional arena, Saudi Arabia will continue to operate to restrict Iran's strength along its borders (Yemen, Bahrain) and throughout the Gulf region, by employing direct force, just as it did in recent years. At the same time, another course of action cannot be rejected: Saudi Arabia's new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, may operate through diplomatic means opposite Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to examine the potential understanding that may be reached between these two rival countries, assuming that the approach of these two Iranians is substantially different from the approach of Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who are actually responsible for Iran's aggressive policy along the borders of the Saudi Kingdom.

As far as the situation in Syria is concerned, it seems that Saudi Arabia will continue to strive for the removal of Assad and for undermining the Iranian hold on that country. In effect, however, it appears that Saudi Arabia is currently much more concerned by the rising power of ISIS in the region, and that it strives to significantly undermine its strength through every means that may become available to it. It seems, therefore, that in the coming years, this commandment will occupy center stage in the strategic dialog between Riyadh and Washington on the one hand and between Riyadh and Moscow on the other hand, as well as between Riyadh and Ankara, where relations seem to have warmed up recently. Internationally, Saudi Arabia will continue to promote a policy of enhanced balance vis-à-vis the USA, and in effect, the trend toward closer relations with the Putin administration, which is currently regaining its status as a significant player in the region, is expected to continue.

What about Israel? As long as Israel is conceived as vital opposite the two threat circles that concern Riyadh – ISIS and radical Islam on the one hand, and Iran and its Shi'ite satellites on the other hand – a substantial space will be maintained for creative ideas that pertain to the coordination of shared interests (mainly in the field of security) and the joint promotion thereof. In view of the correlation of interests and the similar way in which the regional threats are conceived by Riyadh and Jerusalem, a more significant tightening of the relations between the two countries may have been anticipated. However, such a step will depend, on the one hand, on the willingness of Jerusalem to consider significant diplomatic moves vis-à-vis the Palestinians in the spirit of the established Saudi initiative and on the other hand – on the willingness of Saudi Arabia to assign a higher priority to the Palestinian issue, which, as stated, is currently rated fairly low on Riyadh's scale of priorities. 


Haim Tomer, formerly a high-ranking Mossad officer, headed two major divisions within the organization in recent years, until his retirement in January 2014.

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Archive photo: Reuters

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